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Cover of Autumn 2002 - Winter 2003 Issue

 

Longwood Alumna Monitors Relics of Naval History

Kent Booty, Associate Editor

Jeanne Willoz-Egnor '86, is the collections manager of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News
Jeanne Willoz-Egnor '86, is the collections manager of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News
Naval warfare was changed forever in 1862 when the USS Monitor, one of the world's first ironclad warships, dueled with the CSS Virginia in a Civil War battle in Hampton Roads. Less than a year later, while being towed south for blockade duty, the Monitor sank in a storm off the North Carolina coast, killing 16 of her crew.

The wreck was discovered in 1973 lying upside down in 240 feet of water with the crumbling hull resting on the displaced gun turret, also upside down, which triggered a race-against-the-clock effort to recover and preserve pieces from what one historian calls a "time capsule of the mid-19th century."

The project, coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has involved divers from the U.S. Navy and NOAA, welders and riggers at Newport News Shipbuilding, conservation experts at the Mariners' Museum, and other experts. In the midst of it all is a Longwood alumna who literally has her hands on something that has captured the imagination of Civil War buffs, students of naval warfare, archaeologists, and journalists and documentary filmmakers from around the world.

Jeanne Willoz-Egnor ('86) is the collections manager of the Mariners' Museum, in Newport News, which is the official repository of artifacts recovered from the Monitor. Thus, each of those 600 items ­ including the engine, propeller and shaft, anchor and, most recently, the trademark turret ­ has passed through her hands. Even though the objects reek of nearly 140 years spent on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean when they first reach her, she doesn't mind.

"They have all smelled terrible and have been covered with all sorts of marine growth ­ clam shells, oyster shells, starfish, sponges, corals, crabs; sometimes the crabs have lived for a couple of days in the conservation tanks," says Jeanne (pronounced Zhahn). "At the end of the day, you smell like dead fish. But I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Willoz-Egnor, who has worked at the Museum since 1994, oversees a staff of four. "My position combines the functions of registrar and collections manager. I'm responsible for all of the objects as they move through the Museum. I coordinate the accessioning, cataloging, research, storage, documentation and conservation of each piece. As interim head of the Collections Committee, I help evaluate objects offered for donation, for loan, and for purchase, which is a group decision. I'm just the coordinator."

One of the largest maritime museums in the world, the Mariners' Museum, set amid 550 wooded acres with a lake, is dedicated to "preserving and interpreting the culture of the sea and its tributaries, its conquest by man, and its influence on civilizations." Among its collection are Mark Twain's original (1859) steamboat pilot's license, the world's oldest gondola (circa 1850), a Japanese sub from World War II, and one of the few life jackets from the Titanic.

"When we were designated as the repository for the Monitor (in 1987, on the 125th anniversary of the battle of the ironclads), previously recovered items were transferred here," she says. "At first we had a small collection of artifacts from the wreck, including the anchor, the lantern, a few bottles, and a lot of wood and iron samples. The larger recoveries didn't start happening until the Navy got involved. The Navy has a vested interest in recovery efforts because for them the Monitor represents the birth of the modern navy. It's definitely a team effort among the Museum, the Navy and NOAA, and for us it's an all-hands-on-deck project. The Monitor project has been very challenging because of its size and complexity. There's no model to go on; we're charting new ground in the conservation and preservation of an extremely fragile object that has essentially become a huge mass of concreted iron. In many respects it's a conservation nightmare."

The Monitor's propeller is transported to its new home as Curtiss Peterson, the Mariners' Museum chief conservator, removes the propeller shaft from the hub
The Monitor's propeller is transported to its new home as Curtiss Peterson, the Mariners' Museum chief conservator, removes the propeller shaft from the hub.
Signs of the Museum's association with the Monitor are everywhere. A glass case near the entrance displays newly retrieved items. An exhibit area nearby is home to the anchor, the first major item that was recovered; the navigation lantern, the last thing seen as the vessel went down; and a slightly smaller-scale version of the turret, with a full-scale replica of one of the two guns protruding from a port. Shelves and tables in storage rooms hold smaller objects. And behind the Museum, in about 10 tanks containing a total of 283,000 gallons of water and chemicals, are the turret, the engine, the propeller and shaft, and a host of large concreted, rust-colored parts ­ the reversing wheel, engine room floor plate, piping, railings, ladder rungs, flanges, valves.

One afternoon in May, Willoz-Egnor took a visitor to that area, open to the public and known officially as the Monitor Conservation Area. Several of the tanks are shiny blue dumpsters donated by BFI, and the Museum has bought or made others with the help of Newport News Shipbuilding. A half-dozen panels explain the Monitor's historical significance, her recovery, and the conservation process.

"Our vice president for buildings and grounds calls this the 'Tank Farm,'" she said with a laugh. "People undertaking large-scale conservation projects have learned that the best tank you can find is a dumpster. The tanks contain water and a solution of sodium hydroxide, which forestalls the continuing degradation of the metal."

In the foreground are two side-by-side tanks with various engine parts. A little farther back is one with a portion of the 11-foot propeller shaft, a portion of the bulkhead and the stuffing box (where the shaft goes through the hull). The propeller lies in an adjacent tank. Two huge tanks near the back hold the Monitor's most prized parts, recovered the past two summers in round-the-clock diving from a barge directly over the wreck.